Bye-Bye Big Box, Hello Digital!

My friend Mikey (whom you may remember from the “Mikey Mobile Adoption Test”) and I were recently driving through our hometown, past a long row of new big-box retail locations that have recently sprung up.

I, somewhat exasperatedly, said, “Who the hell is going to buy all this stuff?”

Our town’s population is only 120,000 but we seem to have a huge overcapacity of retail space, with more going up all the time, thanks in part to a development-hungry First Nations band with plenty of available real estate.

Mikey replied, “Well, the town isn’t getting any smaller and people need to shop somewhere.”

That, and a recent article by MediaPost reporter Laurie Sullivan, got me thinking. Do we? I mean, do we need to shop “somewhere,” as in a physical store location?



I paused, and then replied, “I’m not so sure. I buy a lot more things online.” 



A few days later, I was in a presentation where someone showed digital marketing growth projections for local advertisers on a slide. The growth over the next few years was relatively moderate: about 5% to 6% year over year. This despite the fact that the current penetration rates were well short of 50%.

Put it all together and I can’t help wondering whether we, collectively, are “sandbagging” our local digital growth potential. Modest growth projections assume fairly linear trends in the future. We use past adoption and extrapolate these into the future. Statistically, it’s probably the rational thing to do, but it doesn’t take into account the possibility of a dramatic shift in behavior. For example, what if we’ve reaching a tipping point where, as Sullivan notes, it’s just a lot easier to shop online than to actually hop in your car, drive across town and then try to navigate through a 25,000-square-foot massive retail location?

That’s the way things tend to go in real life. We don’t incrementally change behaviors, we change enmasse. And when we do, we trigger massive waves of change that deconstruct and reconstruct the marketplace. I suspect we’re getting close to that tipping point. 

Personally I, like Sullivan, find the physical act of shopping a royal pain in the tuchus.  Recently, my wife and I decided to go buy some coasters, those little squares that go under cups on your coffee table. Indiana Jones has embarked on less daunting quests. When we finally found them I reckon that, accounting for my wife’s and my time at fair market value, those coasters cost somewhere around a thousand dollars. All this for a six-dollar set of coasters that I don’t even particularly like (don’t tell my wife)!

We’re to the point now where shopping should be painless -- a search, click and buy, then relax and wait for FedEx to deliver. Even local shopping can become massively more efficient through mobile technology. At some point, we have to realize that going to huge retail stores that are built to maximize per visit sales rather than enable you to find what you’re looking for is a horribly inefficient use of our time. And when we do, the current retail paradigm is flipped on its pointy little head. The net impact? Those modest growth curves suddenly shoot for the sky!

And all those big-box stores that Mikey and I drove by?

Perhaps bowling will make a sudden comeback. I know several great locations for an alley.

4 comments about "Bye-Bye Big Box, Hello Digital!".
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  1. Matthew Harris from, November 3, 2011 at 10:39 a.m.

    This is a great post and subject, as a former VP of Marketing for a large real estate developer in South Florida for over 12 years I had the unique opportunity to see how eCommerce has changed the industry. There will always be a need for bricks and mortar for some types of products. Having said that some online retailer make it very easy to compete with bricks and mortar. Lets take Zappos for example, some people may say "I like to buy shoes in the store so I can try them on" Zappos says free shipping and returns! I just saved myself 2 hours shopping at a mall or shoe store.

    Groceries... I will always buy them at a store.
    Large Appliances... Store
    Need to fix something quickly? Home Depot or Lowes.

    Bricks and mortar stores can present a lot of products in an open browsing area giving you the ability to see more product or up-sell you on product you may not even be looking for.

    Luckily people still like to shop online and the recent downturn in commercial real estate has enabled people like me with commercial real estate marketing knowledge to help landlords find creative ways to lease shopping center space. My company is all about helping shopping center owners fill those vacancies. There will always be a need for malls, strip centers, shopping centers, etc. Maybe just not at the level most developers and banks thought we could sustain. Some small cities have enough retail space for cities 3-4 times the size.

    Don't forget some people really do like shopping for certain things. Some people like myself buy a lot of things online but also appreciate going to a retail store when they need something right away. Some men and women really enjoy shopping in stores for clothing, sporting goods, food and more.

  2. Ruth Barrett from, November 3, 2011 at 11:17 a.m.

    If our citizens haven't figured out that to hop in a car, drive across town and then try to navigate through a 25,000-square-foot massive retail location isn't unsustainable, our planet has.

  3. Donna Gordon from Investment Resources, November 3, 2011 at 1:45 p.m.

    Analysts predicted the death of brick and mortar back in the pre-bubble hype days, only to see an expansion of retail during the boom years. Certainly there will always be those who view shopping as a pastime vs a goal, and some items are more conducive to in store purchase. However, the retailer who fails to note the ubiquity of internet options - tablets, phones, as well as standard computers, with an eye to integrating product into multiple channels, is certainly going to face decline. For example - that jacket not in my size in the store? Give me a code to scan right on the ticket, and let me place the order online.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 3, 2011 at 3:46 p.m.

    You have brought up valid points. There always be a need for both - the touchy, feely, actually see in person and on line for certain products. Sometimes see it in person, buy it on line. Many of those stores are built on the borrow from Peter and pay Paul system and on their own credit default program. The dominoes have fallen for many padded with more stuff than people need or want. Follow the money.

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